Democrats & Liberals Archives

What to do with toxic coal ash?

I must say that I was more than taken aback when I saw the headline “Turning toxic coal ash into bridges, buildings.”

The "best" ways to dispose of the heavy metal containing coal ash are apparently mixing it in concrete, highway construction, using it in wall board, sandblasting, and landfill. Somebody tell me it's not true.

According to Scientific American "coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste." After various studies it has been determined that:

the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant --a by-product from burning coal for electricity-- carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.

Perhaps you remember to billion plus gallon ash sludge spill in Harriman, TN. The ash is full of heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, mercury, thallium, which persist in the environment for a very long time.

One might wonder at the wisdom of sludge ponds - open pit storage - of such a toxic waste. It does not seem wise or prudent. Neither does "reusing" toxic material.

Perhaps folks remember Times Beach, Missouri which had to be destroyed because of dioxin mixed with oil that was placed on the roads. So how is using fly ash for sandblasting significantly different? There are no toxic controls that I know of with sand blasting operations?

How does using fly ash, and other coal remnants, as landfill keep it out of the water system?

The argument is made that mixing it with concrete for construction is a "safe" use. The assumption being that concrete is durable. However, concrete is frequently broken up - or erodes over time. One would assume that the heavy metals would likewise be released as it degrades. Using it for bridges - particularly bridge pylons that stand in water doesn't seem very safe to me.

Certainly, mixing it gypsum in sheet rock/wallboard seems dumber still.

How many folks, myself included, do their own home repairs? As you are mixing you concrete, or replacing a damaged wall in your home, do you seal the area, wear a mask, dispose of the residue in an approved toxic site? I don't, and frankly it never occurred to me that I was potentially placing myself - or others - at risk. There is no warning sign that I have ever seen that says that concrete or sheet rock contains toxic material or heavy metals.

I've also been around significant demolition of sites in my life. Imagine the dust that settles over everything and ends up in the landfill, or washed down the street drains. There are no precautions taken there for the escape of this type of toxic materials either.

However, the idea of reusing / repurposing toxic materials could certainly be extended. How about all those spent rods from nuclear power plants and radioactive material from medical facilities. Why not grind it up and use it in the same construction materials? Oh, I forgot. The United States does use "depleted" uranium in its heavy munitions, and as counterweights in airplanes. Never mind. That is nuts too if you ask me.

And they say there is "clean" coal.

If you think that using fly ash in construction and landfills is not a good idea, then here are a couple of actions you can take.

Action form: Tell the EPA to strictly regulate the disposal of contaminated coal waste

Action form: Tell TVA to Take Responsibility for Toxic Coal Spills!

For Further Information
Libby Tucker. Green Inc. 3/12/2009. The Quarrel Over Coal Ash Waste.

NRDC. Contaminated Coal Waste

Posted by Rowan Wolf at March 20, 2009 6:42 PM
Comment #278154

Concrete is regularly used as a shield for radioactivity, and is much less porous than the piles of fly ash that were involved with the spill out in Appalachia. It might complicate things to dispose of concrete with the heavy metals in it, but like the article says, it might be better than using the Portland Cement that requires further carbon emissions to produce.

I also don’t think it would be a bad thing to encourage companies to adopt environmental filtering and scrubbing through the sale of the byproducts.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at March 20, 2009 8:41 PM
Comment #278175

Cadmium is an extremely valuable material, so is mercury, thallium, and arsenic. Why, since removing these metals from a concentrated source by chemical means would not be very difficult, would they not be removed for their value? Now, assuming there is not enough to remove economically, Rowan, what is your logical alternative? Use in concrete does not eliminate leaching of material, true, but it does substantially slow the process, far more than transporting it to some politically unprotected jurisdiction for dumping among the illiterate poor.

Furthermore, Stephen is correct, especially given these particular contaminants that the concrete would be a good shield material. The “radioactivity” in this case is probably not from heavy element decay, but would be comprised of alpha and beta emissions, both of which are short range effects in normal atmospheric conditions. These can be quite harmful in groundwater or food, however, so sealing them up in concrete actually reduces the harmful effects of their storage in loose and water-permeable forms.

I’m all for reducing our use of coal for power generation but, once you have piles of fly ash sitting around, making concrete out of it seems like the best available solution.

Posted by: Lee Jamison at March 21, 2009 1:58 AM
Comment #278176

OK, I read the Sci-Am article and I was wrong about the source of the radioactivity- uranium and thorium- decidedly heavy elements. That introduces a very small gamma ray component into the radiation spectrum. However, lets put this into perspective with this from the article-

(according) to USGS calculations, buying a house in a stack shadow—in this case within 0.6 mile [one kilometer] of a coal plant—increases the annual amount of radiation you’re exposed to by a maximum of 5 percent. But that’s still less than the radiation encountered in normal yearly exposure to X-rays.
In other words you put yourself in greater danger by moving to Denver than by being close to one of these ash piles.

Posted by: Lee Jamison at March 21, 2009 2:08 AM
Comment #278254


Unless the ash sludge breaks loose and inundates your home…in that case Denver would have been a good move.

There is a problem with our mining and processing operations, and the problem is dangerous as to toxicity and devastating mud slides.

Rowan thinks the problem should be addressed, and you think that if she doesn’t like the problem she should what??? Move to Denver?

That kind of reminds me of our solution to nuclear waste…put it in a big hole in the ground, somewhere near a fault line, and worry about radiation poisoning after the earthquake.

Posted by: Marysdude at March 22, 2009 8:50 AM
Comment #278404

Why coal ash does have its problems right now I wonder how long it will be before the Industry learns how to seperate the carbon before they burn it for electricity. For why I look forward to someone who can explain to me the difference between Organic and Non-organic Carbon. I wonder how much energy can be released by a Pure Carbon Atom being split for energy. Especially since the toxic minerals could be refined and collected at the mine.

Does anybody know whats happens when you burn a piece of .999% pure piece of coal?

Posted by: Henry Schlatman at March 24, 2009 1:07 AM
Comment #278438


I think the problem is what to do with all the sludge that has accumulated and is still accumulating. Some want to process it into existing powders like cement and drywall. Rowan is saying that it is too dangerous to use an unsafe product like that. I’m not sure I’d want to live in a house surrounded by radiation either…let’s see, we’d pour a slab full of low radiation, then put our house up and install drywall walls in all our rooms with radio active wallboard…what next insulate our roofs and ceilings with decomposing uranium?

Posted by: Marysdude at March 24, 2009 1:24 PM
Comment #278498

Why I am by no means an expert in coal technology I do believe that we can find a better way to refine the material we pull out of the ground just as we do with other ore. Because if we can detect these minerals in coal than surely there is a method that will allow us to extract them and put them back into the ground from which they came. Or better yet find a Market that is not harnful to Man and Nature.

Posted by: Henry Schlatman at March 24, 2009 7:00 PM
Comment #278509


There are plenty of mine sites currently in operation, and they all have pools of this toxic sludge. We either have the technology or can research the technology, but the present solution seems to hinge on this “blend with cement and gypsum”, which may be acceptable, but probably not…

Posted by: Marysdude at March 24, 2009 7:28 PM
Comment #278547

As much as I would enjoy being able to explain how America can solve the coal ash problem through better methods of control and refinement. Not holding a Phd in cemistry I am left with Nature to do its thing. So, why the SO2 is a problem for the manufacture needing to burn coal in order to roduce heat and power. I wonder how many of them know that they can feed Diatoms (a form of algea) the SO2.

Now, spliting the other things in the sludge into useable products is going to take greater minds then mine.

Posted by: Henry Schlatman at March 24, 2009 10:50 PM
Comment #278554

Fly ash is commonly used in concrete and in soil stabilization worldwide.

I beg to differ with the idea that it is highly toxic.

Cement is highly toxic.

Sand is highly toxic.

Sawdust is highly toxic.

Dirt is highly toxic.

…if taken in the same context.

Capping is commonly used to control contaminated areas. If you bond a “toxic” chemical into a solid, it no longer poses a threat. Radioactivity is a part of the real world. It exists all around us. Go buy or borrow a geiger counter if you don’t believe me. Over reaction to the word radioactive is a form of ignorance, in my opinion.

Posted by: gergle at March 25, 2009 12:22 AM
Comment #278563


Did you read Rowans’ post? I’m not sure I’d use the term ‘over-reaction’ to describe her analysis. As far as I can tell, she posits a problem, then explains why she disagrees with the solutions so far provided by those who think they have a handle on it. The sludge we are talking about has been accumulating for several years, yet the recent mud slide in Tennessee is the first I’d heard of it. You may be right about the toxicity being benign, and the radioactivity non-threatening…but, to have the mess surrounding you for the rest of your life may not be the best solution. I keep thinking about how we keep putting off doing something constructive with the spent rods taken from nuke plants, and how dangerous they are to us because all we can think to do is bury them in places no one wants them to be buried.

Posted by: Marysdude at March 25, 2009 8:05 AM
Comment #278624

Why the coal ash you throw out in the garden is different than the coal sludge talked about Rowan I do think like the Hog Fram Lagoons these toxic lakes should be better regilated so that they do not cause a spill worse than the Oil Spills caused by tankers. For why a necessary by-product of production, I do believe that with future studies we can find a better solution than storing the waste behind walls made of soil.


Posted by: Henry Schlatman at March 25, 2009 7:14 PM
Comment #290628

One ounce of uranium produces the same energy as a ton of coal and with a lot less radiation. Lets stick with reactors and get rid of coal as much as possible.

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